Destination: Nice

The southern Alps are only a figurative hop, skip and a jump away, and offer fantastic riding, as one jammy bugger from found out…

by Max_Leonard   December 11, 2011  

It's annoying, isn't it, when people talk about fantastic riding country somewhere exotic that happens to be their local loop: 'I can ride into the Santa Monica mountains straight from the front door.' Or the guy who says things like: 'Oh, I don't need a winter bike.'

Well, what if I told you that about 80 minutes away (by plane, admittedly), there's sun, good year-round riding and some fantastic mountain roads? Wouldn't you be tempted to live the Colnago lifestyle on a Carrera budget? The Alpes Maritimes, despite being covered as part of Rapha's Great Road Climbs of the Southern Alps book, are still relatively unknown to UK riders, overshadowed by their big brothers up north - the high Alps proper - and the Pyrenees to the west. Yet there's still some chunky climbs here, within sniffing distance of the Med, as well as a lot of road cycling history, and a dollop of modern pro culture too.

Having travelled to the area for work, I took a few days off afterwards with my bike to have a nose about (stop me if I'm becoming that guy). In Nice, the geography is quite easy to get your head around. There's a big blue thing to the south that's called the Med. Then there are the mountains and the coast road. Go west and it's busy until Cannes, after which you get into the Esterel national park. Go east and you're on the James Bond road, the Basse Corniche to Monaco - all sheer rock faces, half-hidden villas and sparkling sea below. A bit past that and you hit Italy - so the Poggio's within an easy 100km ride. Going north, there are two river valleys to follow from town: the Var and the Paillon, with busier arterial roads (and cycle paths) to whisk you away from civilisation and into the mountains in relative comfort.

Anywhere else, and you're going up, and pretty quickly, because this is where the Alps hit the sea. For starters, there's every Anglophone's reference climb, the Madone, which Lance used to hurl himself up. That hits 927 metres on the altimeter only 14km from the promenade at Menton, east of Nice. But most of the local clubs head for the Col de Vence to test themselves. It's a 963-metre hump with great sea views, west of town. From the start, at the fountain in the pretty main square in Vence, it climbs around 550 metres to the top. If you're Contador, you'll do this in 22 minutes; if, though, you're not, and you haven't had your steak for breakfast, it'll take considerably longer - but it's a lovely climb.

Then there's the col d'Eze, which climbs from a junction slap bang in the middle of Nice, and takes in those lovely roads they ride in the finishing loops of the Paris-Nice, up to La Turbie and back down to the Promenade des Anglais, but the real jackpot is when you head properly inland - towards climbs like the cols de Braus and Turini (made famous by the Monte Carlo rally), and the Madone d'Utelle. Here, you quickly emerge from the hustle of the Côte d'Azur on to small, quiet roads that lead into the high Alps through breathtaking gorges, and past beautiful villages perchés - mediaeval villages loftily perched high on rocky crags. Through the Mercantour national park there's some seriously high peaks. The col de la Bonette, the highest paved road in Europe, is feasibly within riding distance, and there are huge, lonesome open spaces, complete with wolves (of the type that keep themselves to themselves). What more could you want?

Oh yeah: pros. Outside Nice, along the coast road towards Monaco, we spot a group of riders up ahead dressed in bright blue. We catch them up, and, yup, it's Astana (clearly they weren't trying). Remi di Gregorio and two others, spinning their legs out… and then Vino, further along the road, powering towards us up a hill with his race face on. Though looking at his Chrono des Nations result he should maybe have gone harder. Many pros, including Thor, choose Monaco as their conveniently tax-free home (yup, cyclists do that too), so it was almost surprising we didn't see more. Aside from the pros, the local riding talent seems to divide itself neatly into stick thin young Italians who'd drop Pantani; walnut-coloured, sinewy 50-year olds, who could take down a cat-2 rider half their age; and portly old bullfrogs in saggy, faded winter kit (mainly FDJ or - weirdly - Banesto), wheezing their way in formation up the climbs.

I rode, most of the time, with Cycle Côte d'Azur, a cycling guiding and touring company based in Nice, run by Ironman (should that be Ironwoman?) Claire Scrutton and former Olympian track cyclist, and Commonwealth bronze-winner, Emma Davies. They provided guided rides as well as self-guiding cheat sheets, and a wealth of local knowledge. Which came in handy when my slightly overoptimistically epic ride planning hit a wall of freezing impossibility. What do you mean climbing over the Bonette, then over another two 2,000-metre-plus cols, into Italy and back, in October, is too ambitious? We did make it up Bonette but, after accepting that frostbite wasn't a great holiday souvenir, we warmed up with coffee and pizza, and they suggested a wealth of other options, so we weren't disappointed by the diversion.

Cycle Côte d'Azur are keen to stress the convenience, the good weather (warm and settled from mid-March until mid-October), year-round riding up to 1,000m, and the family-friendliness of Nice. What with the beach, the culture and the museums, you might even be able to convince the family to come out too. Judging by the fun that was had, I'll be back. It's not so bad being that guy, you know.

You can fly to Nice from all London airports and most large UK regional airports including, and if you are flying with your bike it's also worth reading the guide to Flying with your Bike.

With thanks to Cycle Côte d'Azur, who are currently offering daily rides, weekend spring camps and special Paris-Nice and Milan-Sanremo packages.

12 user comments

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Wow now not sure if I want a holiday or new wheels!

andybnk's picture

posted by andybnk [99 posts]
11th December 2011 - 21:55


"In Nice, the geography is quite easy to get your head around ... go east and it's busy until Cannes, after which you get into the Esterel national park. Go west and you're on the James Bond road, the Basse Corniche to Monaco"

Um, isn't it the other way round? I'm pretty sure that Monaco is east of Nice, and almost certain that Italy is east of France Thinking

I only ask as I was lucky enough to enjoy a few days there this summer en route from Grenoble to the Pyrenees. Beautiful area and stunning rides. Definitely a hidden gem!

jamesfifield's picture

posted by jamesfifield [105 posts]
11th December 2011 - 22:33


I was in this area during April a few years ago, staying in Menton - statistically the sunniest town in France. It rained extremely heavily all week. Ironically, the weather was great for Devolder's win in Flanders!

posted by Arwel [3 posts]
11th December 2011 - 22:35


Totally right James, Monaco - east and Cannes - west. I should have spotted that, in fact it might have been an editing error on my part, sorted now though.

Tony Farrelly's picture

posted by Tony Farrelly [4202 posts]
11th December 2011 - 22:42


The coast road from Cannes to Cap Esterel is not for the faint hearted! (busy winding road, with a drop into rocks and sea on one side and rocks on the other) That said I'm jealous of anyone who is cycling around such a beautiful part of the world!

the_mikey's picture

posted by the_mikey [155 posts]
12th December 2011 - 8:27


Cool. Went to Nice on honeymoon many years ago.

posted by Super Domestique [1697 posts]
12th December 2011 - 10:55


Whoops! Silly east/west mistake given the context. Thanks.

posted by Max_Leonard [55 posts]
12th December 2011 - 12:21


looks fantastic, would love to go, good review!

posted by Karbon Kev [683 posts]
12th December 2011 - 19:50


GPX files for the above, please!

phy2sll's picture

posted by phy2sll [31 posts]
13th December 2011 - 12:04


Nice :- You can get from the airport to the town (get off at the railway station) by bus, plenty of room for bike bags and luggage on the bus and over the road from the station there are lots of cheap and cheerful small hotels. I had flown Easy jet from Geneva unfortunately the baggage handlers had broken my bike, So, forced to spend long weekend on the beach and people watching from the bars whilst watching the Tour on telly. It does not get any better,great place to chill.

onward ever onward

bikecellar's picture

posted by bikecellar [264 posts]
13th December 2011 - 22:23


Having cycled this part of the world with the girls and boys of Cycle Cote d'Azur I can recommend their services - they really know what they are about - so much so that I am working with Claire and Emma on a ladies-only training camp in February.

There are themed weekends throughout the year for those who are preparing for their "A-event" of the season, too.

The options for riding in that part of the world are great, and if it's moderate climbing that you are after, there are several classic climbs within very easy reach - as mentioned, the Madone, Col d'Eze, site of some classic Paris-Nice TT action in years gone by, and the Col du Tanneron, where many a winning attack has been launched in the final en-ligne stage of the "Race to the Sun" ...

You don't have to ride too far to find some real toughies, too ...

This week I have mostly been riding a Mondiale in Deda V107 with Campagnolo Super Record 11 ...

posted by velotech_cycling [78 posts]
16th December 2011 - 22:21


Been there, done that, must take the bike next time Big Grin

SWMBO and I went to Monaco for the start of the 2009 TdF and Côte d'Azur as a result. We returned last year for a long weekend break. We stayed in Cap d'Ail
between Nice and Monaco.

The public transport links are good and the train is a great way to get from the airport, along the coast to where you are staying. The busses are also good value for other trips (1 euro each way Nice to Monaco!).

Like I said, I must take the bike next time. Maybe when I go to Nice for the 2013 TTT.

posted by fuzzy [68 posts]
19th December 2011 - 11:07